Rudyard Kipling's "The Female of the Species"

Updated on April 4, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Rudyard Kipling

Source

Introduction and Text of the Poem

In thirteen stanzas, each consisting of two couplets, Rudyard Kipling's "The Female of the Species" describes the archetypal differences between the male and female of various species from the cobra to the human. According to Paramahansa Yogananda,

It seems there has always been a rivalry between man and woman. But they are equals; neither one is superior. . . . Man argues that woman is emotional and cannot reason, and woman complains that man cannot feel. Both are incorrect. Woman can reason, but feeling is uppermost in her nature; and man can feel, but in him reason is predominant. The ideal is to balance reason and feeling in one’s nature. ("Balancing Our Male and Female Natures")

The speaker in Kipling's poems seems to be reporting from experience or some acquired knowledge about the difference between the behavior in each situation, how the female will behave as opposed to how the male will behave. Thus immediately, the speaker states that his observation have concluded that the female are "more deadly" than the males. The differences are superficial, but they are still important on the physical level, and worth considering.

The Female of the Species

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When Nag the basking cobra hears the careless foot of man,
He will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid it if he can
But his mate makes no such motion where she camps beside the trail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

When the early Jesuit fathers preached to Hurons and Choctaws,
They prayed to be delivered from the vengeance of the squaws.
’Twas the women, not the warriors, turned those stark enthusiasts pale.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man’s timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say,
For the Woman that God gave him isn’t his to give away;
But when hunter meets with husband, each confirms the other’s tale—
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Man, a bear in most relations—worm and savage otherwise,—
Man propounds negotiations, Man accepts the compromise.
Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.

Fear, or foolishness, impels him, ere he lay the wicked low,
To concede some form of trial even to his fiercest foe.
Mirth obscene diverts his anger—Doubt and Pity oft perplex
Him in dealing with an issue—to the scandal of The Sex!

But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same;
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity—must not swerve for fact or jest.
These be purely male diversions—not in these her honour dwells.
She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.

She can bring no more to living than the powers that make her great
As the Mother of the Infant and the Mistress of the Mate.
And when Babe and Man are lacking and she strides unclaimed to claim
Her right as femme (and baron), her equipment is the same.

She is wedded to convictions—in default of grosser ties;
Her contentions are her children, Heaven help him who denies!—
He will meet no suave discussion, but the instant, white-hot, wild,
Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child.

Unprovoked and awful charges—even so the she-bear fights,
Speech that drips, corrodes, and poisons—even so the cobra bites,
Scientific vivisection of one nerve till it is raw
And the victim writhes in anguish—like the Jesuit with the squaw!

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her
Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands
To some God of Abstract Justice—which no woman understands.

And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern—shall enthral but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male.

Reading of "The Female of the Species"

Commentary

Rudyard Kipling's poem dramatizes the notion that females in all species, often thought to be demure and soft, are actually more iron-willed than their counterpart.

Stanza 1: The Bear

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

The speaker begins by claiming that if a dweller of the Himalayas happens upon a male bear and "shouts to scare the monster," the bear will "often turn aside." Not so with the female of the bear species—she will "rend[ ] the peasant tooth and nail." Therefore the speaker concludes that the "female of the species is more deadly than the male."

Stanza 2: The Cobra

When Nag the basking cobra hears the careless foot of man,
He will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid it if he can
But his mate makes no such motion where she camps beside the trail.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

Moving to the reptiles, the speaker again claims that the female is deadlier. If a person happens upon the male cobra, "Nag" will sometimes wriggle sideways and avoid [the careless foot of man] if he can." Again, not so with Nag's female mate, who "makes no such motion."

Stanza 3: Natives

When the early Jesuit fathers preached to Hurons and Choctaws,
They prayed to be delivered from the vengeance of the squaws.
’Twas the women, not the warriors, turned those stark enthusiasts pale.
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

The speaker then reports that when the Christian missionaries encountered the "Hurons and Choctaws," the "Jesuit fathers" feared "the squaws" "not the warriors." The woman "turned the [fathers] pale."

Stanza 4: The Timid Man

Man’s timid heart is bursting with the things he must not say,
For the Woman that God gave him isn’t his to give away;
But when hunter meets with husband, each confirms the other’s tale—
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.

In stanza 4, the speaker reports that men have to hold their tongues, because the men are "timid" and have no recourse but to suffer in silence. Even though God gave woman to man, man is not allowed to give her away.

Stanza 5: Man, as Bear

Man, a bear in most relations—worm and savage otherwise,—
Man propounds negotiations, Man accepts the compromise.
Very rarely will he squarely push the logic of a fact
To its ultimate conclusion in unmitigated act.

While a man is tough in most dealings with his fellows, he is a "worm and savage" with women. A man will negotiate and compromise as necessary. About a man's behavior, the speaker asserts that the male will not push his argument to the outer limits of logic.

Stanza 6: Scandalous Nature

Fear, or foolishness, impels him, ere he lay the wicked low,
To concede some form of trial even to his fiercest foe.
Mirth obscene diverts his anger—Doubt and Pity oft perplex
Him in dealing with an issue—to the scandal of The Sex!

In stanza 6, the speaker continues describing how a man will behave and what drives him: fear, foolishness, and "mirth obscene diverts his anger." A man is often assailed with "doubt and pity." And for all this, the speaker thinks man's nature is scandalous.

Stanza 7: The Ability to Focus

But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same;
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

Unlike the scattershot virtue of the male, the female is focused on "one sole issue," and "every fibre of her frame" is concentrated on that issue, and that concentration makes her "deadlier than the male." But the reason for that concentration is "lest the generations fail."

Stanza 8: Propagation of the Species

She who faces Death by torture for each life beneath her breast
May not deal in doubt or pity—must not swerve for fact or jest.
These be purely male diversions—not in these her honour dwells.
She the Other Law we live by, is that Law and nothing else.

The female takes as her purpose of being the care for her young. She has no time and inclination for doubt. She cannot be swayed by "male diversions" that inhere in argument resolution. Her one goal is clear, and she will protect her young without compromise.

Stanza 9: Power to Protect

She can bring no more to living than the powers that make her great
As the Mother of the Infant and the Mistress of the Mate.
And when Babe and Man are lacking and she strides unclaimed to claim
Her right as femme (and baron), her equipment is the same.

The power that makes the female great is her power to protect her young, which includes her relationship with the male. Even unmarried, childless women possess the same "equipment."

Stanza 10: War Against the Enemy

She is wedded to convictions—in default of grosser ties;
Her contentions are her children, Heaven help him who denies!—
He will meet no suave discussion, but the instant, white-hot, wild,
Wakened female of the species warring as for spouse and child.

The female is "wedded to convictions" that demonstrate that "her contentions are her children," and she will fight to death anyone who disagrees with her or tries to injure those children.

Stanza 11: Throughout the Evolutionary Spectrum

Unprovoked and awful charges—even so the she-bear fights,
Speech that drips, corrodes, and poisons—even so the cobra bites,
Scientific vivisection of one nerve till it is raw
And the victim writhes in anguish—like the Jesuit with the squaw!

Despite the manner of the accost, the female will "fight," "bite," or cause "the victim [to writhe] in anguish."

Stanza 12: The Uncompromising Female

So it comes that Man, the coward, when he gathers to confer
With his fellow-braves in council, dare not leave a place for her
Where, at war with Life and Conscience, he uplifts his erring hands
To some God of Abstract Justice—which no woman understands.

Because of the uncompromising nature of the female, and because the male is a "coward," the men cannot invite women to meet with them "in council." Men, who seek justice "at war with Life and Conscience," cannot allow themselves to be distracted by females, who do not make those fine distinctions.

Stanza 13: The Inherent Differences

And Man knows it! Knows, moreover, that the Woman that God gave him
Must command but may not govern—shall enthral but not enslave him.
And She knows, because She warns him, and Her instincts never fail,
That the Female of Her Species is more deadly than the Male.

The speaker claims that both men and women know the inherent differences between them, implying that they must take steps to mollify those differences. The woman, who may be banished from the council, will always "command" if not "govern," because "[h]er instincts never fail." She will always be "more deadly than the Male."

Rudyard Kipling

Source

Life Sketch of Rudyard Kipling

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born December 30, 1865, in Mumbai, India (at that time the city went by the appellation "Bombay"). Kipling's father, John Lockwood Kipling, was a professor of architectural sculpture at the Bombay School of Art, and his mother Alice MacDonald Kipling was a poet. At age 6, the young Kipling was sent back to England to be educated. He returned to India in 1882.

Rudyard Kipling worked as a journalist and ventured into the creative writing of poetry and fiction. His Plain Tales from the Hills, published in 1888 gained him a following in England, and in 1889, he returned to England to live in London.

Kipling married an American, Caroline Balestier, in 1892, and the couple relocated to Brattleboro, Vermont, in the USA, where Caroline's family resided. The couple had two daughters, Josephine (1893) and Elsie (1896); the next year, while living in Rottingdean in Sussex, England, Caroline gave birth to their third child, a son named John, a war hero, who on September 27, 1915, was pronounced missing in action in northern France during the Battle of Loos.

By the late 1890s Kipling's fame had spread and he was considered a very popular writer of both children's and adult literature. He wrote his Just So Stories for his elder daughter, Josephine, who died from pneumonia at the age of six years. Other wildly famous works at the time include Stalky and Co. (1899), Kim (1901), perhaps his most noted work, and Puck of Pook's Hill (1906).

Kipling is often referred to as a British poet laureate, but he turned down that honor as well as the knighthood when they were offer to him in 1907. He did accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907; he was the first English writer to be awarded that honor.

The Kiplings moved into a 17th century home in East Sussex in 1902, and they lived there for the rest of their lives. Kipling continued to travel extensively, including many journeys back to India and trips to South Africa, where he spent time during the winter months.

After his son went missing in 1915 while serving in the Irish Guards, Kipling wrote a history of the regiment titled, "The Irish Guards in the Great War." John Kipling had originally been declared unfit for military service because of his acute myopia, but the young lad desired so strongly to serve that his father interceded to help enter his son into the Guards. Kipling searched for many years trying to find his son's remains, which were finally identified nearly a century after the soldier went missing.

Kipling was greatly affected by the MIA of his son; in addition to engaging many searches for the young soldier's remains, the father joined the Imperial War Graves Commission and was responsible for selecting inscriptions for memorials, for example, "Their Name Liveth For Evermore." He worked with Winston Churchill to have all war memorials of equal size despite the rank of the soldier.

Rudyard Kipling spent his last years in poor health, suffering from a severe ulcer, from which he died on January 18, 1936. His ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey in Poets' Corner next to the graves of poet and novelist Thomas Hardy and novelist, author of the widely famous A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens.

Kipling's Reputation

Despite his wide-spread fame, Rudyard Kipling's reputation started to take hits in the 1890s. Although Kipling was a genuine talent as a writer and a thinker, his reputation continued to decline when notable personalities such as Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, and the stunningly disreputable Edward Said began to express their depraved evaluations of Kipling.

Oscar Wilde framed his jejune opinion this way: "As one turns over the pages of his Plain Tales from the Hills, one feels as if one were seated under a palm-tree, reading life by superb flashes of vulgarity."

George Orwell in 1942 offered the ludicrous remark that "during five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him" as "morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting."

According to the disingenuous fraud, Edward Said, "Kipling could not imagine an India in historical flux out of British control." About this idiotic remark, Sam Joridson has correctly quipped, "Kipling can be accused of many things, but I’d say a lack of imagination is not one of them."

But from these statements a generalized, vague, false view of Rudyard Kipling has gripped Western culture, from the media, who never encounter a left-wing accusation of racism, it cannot embrace, to the professorate, about whom the same characterization remains relevant.

Rescuing and Rehabilitating

T. S. Eliot remarked about Kipling, " . . . it is impossible to belittle Kipling." But Eliot's critical essays about Kipling hinge on making a distention between Kipling's fiction, for which Eliot considers Kipling a master and Kipling's poetry, for which Eliot considers the novelist less masterful. Thus Eliot's attempt to rehabilitate Kipling went only so far, and likely had little effect of the ilk that continued to label Kipling a racist and a misogynist.

Among those currently who are attempting to restore Rudyard Kipling to his rightful place in the literary world as a writer and political thinker is David Gilmour whose biography, The Long Recessional, offers analyses that serve to take the sting out of many the barbs lobbed against Kipling over the decades. According to John Gross, whose review appears in The Telegraph, "you close The Long Recessional with enhanced respect for Kipling, especially after reading the closing pages. He saw the threat of Hitler from the first. His last years — he died in 1936 — were overshadowed by his premonition of the conflict to come, and in the Second World War, as Gilmour justly claims, he had his posthumous vindication."

The brilliant critic and editor of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball, credits a zeitgeist shift with the "de-claw[ing] and domesticat[ing of] Rudyard Kipling, that gradually diminished that brusque and imposing giant to an entertaining homunculus." Kimball says, "Kipling’s politics suddenly became a popular as well as an elite embarrassment."

That Rudyard Kipling had been a widely read author presented a problem for those whose political leanings had shifted with that zeitgeist. Having committed to memory Kipling's many memorable lines, quoters engaged a level of disingenuousness that can only be labeled shameful. For example, as Kimball explains,

It got to the point where people who had absorbed Kipling unwittingly suppressed his authorship. Orwell notes that Middleton Murry, quoting Kipling’s famous lines "There are nine and sixty ways / Of constructing tribal lays," mistakenly attributed them to Thackeray. Kipling might have written good poetry, but it wasn’t good for poetry to have been written by Kipling. Sanitizing Kipling, segregating his political and social opinions from his literary accomplishment, has had the unfortunate effect of diminishing the appreciation or even the knowledge of that accomplishment.

Roger Kimball's elucidating essay, "Rudyard Kipling unburdened," appearing in April 2008 in The New Criterion, can be considered one of the most comprehensive pieces to rehabilitate the reputation of Rudyard Kipling. Kimball debunks the often misunderstood lines that have served to tarnish Kipling's reputation. For example, the line with the phrase, "lesser breeds," offered fodder for the politically correct to munch on for decades. "Lesser breeds" appears in Kipling's poem, "Recessional," an occasional poem written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boasting as the Gentiles use

Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget — lest we forget!

About the misunderstanding of these lines, Kimball explains,

As Orwell noted, the line about "lesser breeds" "is always good for a snigger in pansy-left circles." But it doesn’t refer, as Orwell also noted, to "coolies" being kicked about "by pukka sahib in a pith helmet" but rather to the awe-less multitudes "without the Law," Germans, first of all, but also anyone who glorified power without restraint or obeisance.

Another set of lines that cause the "pansy-left" to cringe is the one containing the currently offensive reference to "white": "Take up the White Man’s burden—/ And reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard—." But again, the term "white" does not refer to skin color, or to finite imperialists; it refers to "civilization" of "those who conduct themselves within the Law for the good of others"; thus "Gunga Din may have a ‘dirty’ hide, but he is ‘white, clear white, inside.'"

It is certainly sad and shameful that a set of events, including misunderstandings real or concocted, may be allowed to tarnish a good man's reputation, whether it be a writer a century or two ago or a Supreme Court nominee in present day America. Nevertheless, the "pansy-left circles" will always be with us, and as Evelyn Waugh, elucidated:

Kipling believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defenses fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.

Waugh's description of the "liberals" remains in place, as comedian and pundit Evan Sayet has so accurately and thoroughly elucidated. And it remains to be seen whether the Kipling reputation can ever be restored to its original luster. One can hope that those reading his works today can at least take the time to learn some history, even if they have no capacity for getting its meaning right.

As Andrew Roberts has asserted in his review of Gilmour's The Long Recessional, "The abuse of Kipling has been long and sustained, yet his works might prove our ideal cultural reference for the next stages of the war against terror: he warned that imperialists could only expect 'the blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard'."

Sources


Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

    Comments

    Submit a Comment
    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      3 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you for your response, Shyron! One of my faves also. And this fine poem certainly deserves more attention.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 

      3 years ago from Texas

      Rudyard Kipling is also one of my favorite writers, I love poetry and I especially love "The Female of the Species" poem.

      Thank you for bringing this to mind.

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      3 years ago from U.S.A.

      Oh, yes, Kipling was a master, for sure. His reputation has been somewhat sullied by postmodernist, left-wing loons, but that is to be expected. Thanks for the response, John!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Rudyard Kipling is one of my favourite writers, and this is perhaps his best poem. I love the reading and your commentary.

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